Patrick Power Library

What is an Annotated Bibliography?

A bibliography is a list of works on a subject that gives complete publication information and is formatted according to one of several documentation styles (MLA, APA, etc.). An annotated bibliography gives for each citation some commentary from the person who has compiled the list of works.


Purpose

An annotated bibliography describes the field of research on a topic and should include sources that reflect the range of approaches to the subject. The annotations tend to do one or both of two things:

Description: a descriptive annotation provides a brief overview of the text.

This can include:

  • a description of the contents and a statement of the main argument (i.e., what is the book about?)
  • a summary of the main points
  • a quotation or two to illustrate the style, tone, treatment of the subject

Evaluation: a critical annotation includes an analysis of the work.

Some useful points to consider are:

  • the strengths and weaknesses of the text
  • its accuracy, currency, and/or completeness
  • the intended audience, the level of difficulty
  • the qualifications and authority of the author and publisher
  • the usefulness of the text for your research project or for further study
  • the place of this text in the field of research covered in your bibliography

Most annotated bibliographies include a combination of descriptive and evaluative comments.


Audience

The key to writing a good annotation is to consider who will use it. If it is for someone else, what will your reader need to know in order to decide whether or not to read the text for him/herself? If it is for you, how can you sum up the work so that later you will remember your ideas about it? Be brief, clear, and succinct to convey the maximum useful information in your annotation.


Length

Annotations can vary in length from very brief (a sentence or less) to very detailed (a page or more), but the average length of annotations is around 4-5 sentences or 150 words. The length is related to the purpose and intended audience of the annotated bibliography. Your annotations should be written in complete sentences or brief paragraphs.

Annotated bibliographies are useful for:

  • Active Reading:Annotations make you think carefully about what you are reading: can you sum up an article or a book in a few sentences and state why the source is or isn't useful to your project?
  • Keeping Track:Annotations can form the basis of a research bibliography for a large project, tracking what you've been reading, which sources you’ve found useful and why.
  • Developing Your Ideas:Annotations can help you focus your own ideas on a subject through critically analyzing and articulating your ideas about other treatments of the subject.
  • Surveying the Field: Annotations give an overview of a subject for your reader, showing the range of ideas, viewpoints, what has been "done" on this topic so far, and revealing what has not yet been examined in the literature.

Remember: Always check with your professor for the purpose, format and length requirements of any assignment, including an annotated bibliography, before completing it and handing it in.


Example #1a: Descriptive annotation

A descriptive annotation gives a brief summary of the main points and features of the work, without evaluating it. Note: The following two examples are in APA format.

London, H. (1982). Five myths of the television age. Television quarterly 10, 1, 81-89.

Herbert London, the Dean of Journalism at New York University and author of several books and articles, explains how television contradicts five commonly believed ideas. He uses specific examples of events seen on television, such as the assassination of John Kennedy, to illustrate his points. His examples have been selected to contradict such truisms as: "seeing is believing"; "a picture is worth a thousand words"; and "satisfaction is its own reward." London uses logical arguments to support his ideas which are his personal opinion. He doesn't refer to any previous works on the topic. London's style and vocabulary would make the article of interest to any reader.


Example #1b: Critical Annotation

In addition to what a descriptive annotation should include, a critical annotation evaluates the usefulness of the work, gives a sense of its strengths and weaknesses, and may compare it to other works on similar topics. In this example, the words in bold indicate what has been added to the annotation above to make it a critcal annotation.

London, H. (1982). Five myths of the television age. Television quarterly 10, 1, 81-89.

Herbert London, the Dean of Journalism at New York University and author of several books and articles, explains how television contradicts five commonly believed ideas. He uses specific examples of events seen on television, such as the assassination of John Kennedy, to illustrate his points. His examples have been selected to contradict such truisms as: "seeing is believing"; "a picture is worth a thousand words"; and "satisfaction is its own reward." London uses logical arguments to support his ideas which are his personal opinion. He doesn't refer to any previous works on the topic; however, for a different point of view, one should refer to Joseph Patterson's "Television is Truth" (cited below). London's style and vocabulary would make the article of interest to any reader. The article clearly illustrates London's points, but does not explore their implications, leaving the reader with many unanswered questions.

Examples 1a and 1b reproduced with permission from: Suzanne Sexty. "How to write annotated
bibliographies." Memorial University Libraries. April 22, 2003. August 22, 2003.


Example #2a: Descriptive Annotation

Here is another pair of examples demonstrating the difference between descriptive and critical annotations. The words in bold indicate what has been added to make the second example a critical annotation. These two examples use MLA style.

Summers, Montague. The Vampire, His Kith and Kin. New York: Dutton, 1929.

"The first serious study in English of the Vampire, and kindred traditions from a general, as well as from a theological and philosophical point of view." Concludes that "it is hard to believe that a phenomenon which has so complete a hold over nations both old and young, in all parts of the world, at all times of history, has not some underlying and terrible truth however rare this may be in its more remarkable manifestations." The study covers appearance, characteristics, causes for, feeding habits of, and precautions to be taken against. Includes case histories, ancient accounts, an anthropological-type survey of various nations, asides on premature burial, necrophilia, and various perverse and antisocial acts. Contains a chapter on the vampire in literature and a bibliography of both true and fictitious vampires. A fascinating account which proves the old adage about truth and fiction.


Example #2b: Critical Annotation

Summers, Montague. The Vampire, His Kith and Kin. New York: Dutton, 1929.

"The first serious study in English of the Vampire, and kindred traditions from a general, as well as from a theological and philosophical point of view." Concludes that "it is hard to believe that a phenomenon which has so complete a hold over nations both old and young, in all parts of the world, at all times of history, has not some underlying and terrible truth however rare this may be in its more remarkable manifestations." The study covers appearance, characteristics, causes for, feeding habits of, and precautions to be taken against. Includes case histories, ancient accounts, an anthropological-type survey of various nations, asides on premature burial, necrophilia, and various perverse and antisocial acts. Contains a chapter on the vampire in literature and a bibliography of both true and fictitious vampires. Although useful as a source for broad historical background, this work does not fully address the issue of the vampire's cultural significance. For a review of recent cultural studies work on the figure of the vampire that argues that its current popularity, with both the cultures that represent and the post-modern critics who study it, resides in the vampire’s representation of “racial and sexual mixing,” see Shannon Winnubst, cited below.

Example 2 adapted from McNutt, Dan J. The Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novel: An Annotated
Bibliography of Criticism and Selected Texts. New York & London: Garland, 1975. 61-62.